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This page describes context scenarios and the Library & Sakai 3 Integration Project collaborative activity to build context scenarios.

Table of Contents

About Context Scenarios

Much of this content is based on Designing for the Digital Age, by Kim Goodwin (2009)

Context scenarios are stories of ideal experiences for personas of an undefined, future product or system. Context scenarios are high level and optimistic, focusing on ideal system behavior in situations that will happen. Though context scenarios provide the beginnings of considering the actual design of a product or system, context scenarios avoid providing specific solutions and implementation details. Instead, context scenarios focus on the information and actions personas ideally expect from the system based on their needs and behaviors. By outlining various activities for personas in this way, a clear set of requirements can be developed and prioritized.

Why create them?

Context scenarios allow the design team to:

  • begin to imagine how the actual design of the system will meet persona needs
  • free their imagination and think of "out-of-the-box" design concepts
  • raise questions about our understanding of persona goals, activities and workflows
  • raise questions about the design and technical elements of the system (i.e. security, privacy, systems interoperability, help, etc.)
  • arrive at user-driven system requirements


Our example context scenario is based on preliminary work done for the Library & Sakai 3 Integration Project. It describes a situation in which Allison McCallum, an instructor persona, builds a syllabus for a new course. This scenario has been abbreviated for the purposes of this example - your scenarios are likely to be longer than seven steps.

This context scenario demonstrates:

  • an optimistic, imagined future system that serves Allison's goals, needs and behaviors in the context of a realistic activity that she regularly performs
  • the future system need not be described in detail or realistic - at this stage, the focus is on meeting user needs, following good design principles and raising questions about how user needs can be met (not necessarily answering these questions)
  • a story with a beginning, end and an idea of how long the scene lasted

How to create good context scenarios

Summarized from Designing for the Digital Age, by Kim Goodwin (2009), pp. 308-320

  • Be true to the persona and workflow data we have
    • Make sure your context scenario describes an activity that your persona would regularly do and reflects how your persona would behave at each step of the activity.
  • Describe the future, not the present
    • Imagine a future system that would provide the persona with an ideal user experience.
    • Don't worry too much about the feasibility or details of the system you are imagining, focus more on meeting the needs of the persona.
    • If your ideas for a system raise unanswered questions - that's good! Record the questions and make sure whatever you are proposing addresses a need, goal or behavior of the persona.
  • Craft a story with a beginning and an end
    • Start with a triggering event (i.e. need to create a syllabus for a new course, etc.)
  • Answer who, what, when, where, why and how
    • who: the persona and any others they may interact with.
    • what: data (information, resources, etc) exchanged between the persona, other people and the system as well as actions the persona takes as a result.
    • when: some indication of whether the persona's activity is common, how long it lasts and whether there are interruptions.
    • where: the setting(s) in which the system is used.
    • why: the persona's reasons for performing the activity and motivation for various behaviors along the way.
    • how: the process a persona follows to complete the activity.
  • Use the right level of detail
    • Provide design direction, avoid design specifications (don't worry about technical implementation details)
  • Start with an optimistic mindset
    • Assume the interface is magic. At this stage, focus on how the persona's needs can ideally be met by the system and feel free to use your imagination!
  • Apply important design principles - the following are general design principles to keep in mind, but play a larger role later in the process (no need to focus on these too much):
    • Do no harm, whether that's actual injury or just wasting someone's time.
    • Provide all the tools your persona uses at the same time in the same place.
    • Don't ask for confirmation of actions; make them possible to undo instead.
    • Don't interrupt users to report events they don't care about.
    • Make errors impossible; don't offer choices that won't work.
    • Don't ask users to remember things if you can avoid it.
    • Remember and learn from user behavior.
    • Make reasonable assumptions instead of forcing users to customize or make a lot of unnecessary choices.
    • Don't confuse what users will always do with what they might occasionally do.

Collaborative Activity Process

Follow these steps to contribute context scenarios to the Library & Sakai 3 Integration Project:

  1. Understanding the personas
  2. Understanding the workflow summary
  3. Understanding the overall design's problem and vision statements
  4. Choosing a persona and an activity to detail in a context scenario
  5. Writing the context scenario
  6. Reflecting on the context scenario

Each of these steps is detailed below.

Understanding the personas

A context scenario is written for a specific persona. There are four instructor personas for this project. Please be sure to read and get to know each persona (download Personas document). A summary of the personas and how they compare on major variables is below:

Questions about the personas? Email us!

Understanding the workflow summary

We have been investigating instructor workflows around finding, managing and sharing learning resources for their courses.

We have summarized what we have gathered so far in the Workflow Overview. For more details of specific workflows, check out the Workflow Details.

Questions about the workflow data? Email us!

Understanding the overall design's problem and vision statements

As we build context scenarios for our personas, we need to know the overarching problem we are addressing for the personas and the vision we have for the future to solve the problem. The problem and vision statements are based on our user research and ensure we do not stray too far from our users' needs in imagining context scenarios.

Note on focus of problem and vision statements

The main difference between the Library Focus and the Broader Focus below is the target user group. The Library Focus concentrates on instructors whereas the Broader Focus concentrates on all Sakai 3 users and impact on Sakai 3 content management. Based on our research so far, we know that instructors (and it is safe to assume other user groups: students, staff, researchers, etc) blur the boundaries of "scholarly resources" and are using a wide variety of traditionally scholarly and non-scholarly resources for their courses. To limit "silos" of information and increase interoperability, it makes sense to have one central system to manage various resources, whether they are library-related or not.

As we continue with design and development work, the exact wording of the problem and vision statements may require adjustments (and it would be ideal to have just one problem statement and one corresponding vision statement) but what we have now provides the "pillars" of our design direction and ensure our context scenarios focus on activities around finding, managing and sharing learning resources as seamlessly as possible while paying attention to potential collaboration and feedback opportunities as well as copyright concerns.

Problem Statement

Library Focus:
Library resources and services are being underutilized and perceived as difficult to use because instructors do not have adequate tools to find, manage and share learning content from various online sources within the context of their courses and research projects that would help them meet their goals of being engaging and effective scholars and teachers.

Broader Focus:
Sakai lacks a framework to find, manage and share content from various online sources within the context of course and project sites resulting in teachers and learners using multiple systems that do not integrate well, poor feedback on shared content and potential copyright concerns. Due to these issues, teachers and learners are not able to fully accomplish their goal of being effective scholars and instructors as they spend more time than necessary dealing with multiple systems, are not exposed to collaborative learning opportunities and are not learning about copyright concerns.

Vision Statement

Library Focus:
The new design for Sakai 3 and library integration will help instructors achieve their goals of being engaging and effective scholars and teachers by giving them the ability to find, manage and share learning content from various online sources within the context of their courses and research projects with greater ease and efficiency.

Broader Focus:
The new design for Sakai 3 content management will help teachers and learners achieve their goal of being more effective scholars and instructors by giving them the ability to find, manage and share content from various online sources within the context of their course and project sites while using one system (Sakai), exposing collaborative learning opportunities and providing options to address copyright concerns.

Choosing a persona and an activity to detail in a context scenario

Each context scenario should focus on one persona and one activity for the chosen persona. It is difficult to anticipate all the activities that you may come up with, but the activities should revolve around our workflow themes of finding, managing and sharing learning resources. Some sample activities are included below as a starting point and may not apply to all personas - please feel free to write about other important activities:

  • Creating or updating a syllabus with learning resources (journal articles, news stories, images, videos, etc.). Resources will vary for different personas (some rely heavily on common web resources, others on licensed journal articles, etc.).
  • Collecting learning resources (journal articles, news stories, images, videos, etc.) to be used in an upcoming course (not necessarily building a syllabus).
  • Setting up slides with references to learning resources (journal articles, news stories, images, videos, etc.) for an upcoming lecture.
  • Using a resource in/for a course assignment.
  • Sharing a "stumbled upon" recent online news article/multimedia item with a course.

Check the submitted context scenarios for the personas and activities that have been covered so far. It would be preferable to cover an activity for a persona that has not been covered. If this is not possible, feel free to take an alternate approach for an activity that has already been written about.

You are free to write about any persona you wish. You do not have to write all your context scenarios for one persona or for the same activity across different personas. Please feel free to submit as many context scenarios as you can!

Once you have decided on a persona and an activity to write a context scenario on, please email us with this information so we can keep track of the personas and activities that are going to be written about.

If you think of activities that you may not have time to write about but feel should be addressed, please email us with your ideas.

Writing the context scenario

If you have not already done so, please refer to the example and guidelines on how to write a good context scenario above. If you have any questions, feel free to email us.

Use the Context Scenario Form to submit your context scenario. To avoid any accidental loss of your work, please compose your context scenario offline and cut-and-paste it into the form.

A few minutes after you submit your context scenario, you should be able to see it here along with the other submitted context scenarios.

Reflecting on the context scenario

The Context Scenario Form includes questions to reflect on each context scenario:

  • Was there information about your persona or their workflow you felt was missing, but would have been helpful in creating this context scenario?
  • Are there any questions about your persona, their activity or the proposed design direction that your context scenario raises?
  • Are there additional activities we should create context scenarios about that arise from your context scenario?
  • Any other thoughts on this context scenario?
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